Think Piece: Remembering our Unsung Heroes
While we often acknowledge the exploits and sacrifices of our well-known military heroes, for every one of these there are numerous others whose stories are unknown and whose acts of heroism also deserve recognition. All too often these unsung heroes are overlooked or forgotten; inevitably left hidden in the annals of Australia’s war records waiting for someone to uncover them.
In 2014 Air Force officers at RAAF Edinburgh did just that. The RAAF had been contacted by Playford City Council in relation to a log book of an RAAF pilot who served in World War II. The log book had been found during demolition of a suburban property and had been handed to the Council for safe-keeping. RAAF officers researched the log book and its owner, uncovering the tragic story of ‘unsung’ hero Theodore Victor Benno Kleinig.
Son of Johann Hermann and Dorothea Kleinig, Theodore Kleinig was born in Stockwell in the Barossa Valley on 9 October, 1917. He became a teacher and taught at Truro Primary School just down the road from Stockwell. In 1941 he made the decision to join the Royal Australian Air Force in response to the nation’s call to arms. He was 24 years old. He completed his preliminary flight training at No. 4 Initial Training School in Victor Harbour, and in 1942 commenced pilot training at Parafield Airfield – then an RAAF base.
Following time as a staff officer, Kleinig was posted to 100 SQN. Although fully operational, 100 SQN were flying the somewhat dated but very successful Beaufort aircraft in the Southwest Pacific Area. On 2 December, 1943 Kleinig was transferred to 8 SQN. Based around the Milne Bay area of what is now south-eastern Papua New Guinea, 8 SQN and 100 SQN were heavily involved in the allied air operations over the Southwest Pacific region; in particular, the maritime interdiction and land strike missions conducted around New Britain. Rabaul and surrounding regions had been the target of particularly intense activity throughout December 1943, with mass bombing raids of up to forty aircraft at a time.
Rabaul was a strong fortress of the Japanese with five airfields, searchlights, strong anti-aircraft artillery defences and fighter aircraft. On Christmas Day 1943, FLGOFF Kleinig took off in an RAAF Beaufort Bomber A9-444 in one of the mass air raids against the Japanese over Rabaul. He and his crew would no doubt have been looking forward to returning to base safely that same day to enjoy the Christmas festivities the Squadron had planned. It was hot, humid and basic. Kleinig’s camp had been devastated by malaria over the preceding weeks, so the prospect of Christmas festivities was a great incentive to get the job done and return safely to base.
In the preceding weeks Kleinig had successfully conducted several similar missions. On 6 December he had been one of eight pilots who flew in a raid with 8 SQN. On 13 December he had been one of 13 pilots sent on a mission to strike Lakunai Airfield near Rabaul, also with 8 SQN. This was the same target he would strike on 25 December, 1943. Prior to taking off on 13 December a visiting photographer took a photo of FLGOFF Kleinig and his crew who included Pilot Officer Edwin John Turk (Gymbowen, Vic), Flying Officer Stanley James Miller (Sydney NSW) and Flight Sergeant Barry Cameron White (Camberwell, Vic).
On the morning of 25 December Kleinig and his crew took off for the Christmas Day mission. They dropped their bombs over the target area, but one failed to release. They had a ‘hung bomb’. As they came in to land at Vivigani Airfield their emotions must have been running high. Yes they had survived another dangerous mission and were returning to base to enjoy Christmas festivities but now they had to land safely – with a hung bomb?
Kleinig circled the airstrip and according to accounts, came into land a little high. The aircraft bounced and as it did so the hung bomb exploded on the starboard side. The tail of the aircraft rose and the rear section disintegrated. As the wreckage slid forward, the fuel tanks in the wings exploded and two airmen were thrown out of the aircraft. Two other airmen were incinerated within. All four aircrew were killed; the same airmen photographed just twelve days earlier.
FLGOFF Kleinig had only arrived in theatre one month prior and had commenced duties with 8 SQN a few weeks before his untimely and tragic death. Initially buried in Milne Bay War Cemetery, FLGOFF Kleinig’s remains were later relocated to the main Port Moresby War Cemetery at Bomana in Papua New Guinea. Christmas Day would never be the same for his parents Johann and Dorothea.
In the lead-up to Remembrance Day 2015, with the blessing of Kleinig’s descendants, the RAAF established a display at the RAAF Edinburgh Officer’s Mess. It included Kleinig’s log book, the photo with his crew, and details of their tragic deaths.
His story is just one of many belonging to the group of unsung heroes; soldiers, sailors and airmen who, until recently, have largely been forgotten. Thanks to RAAF Edinburgh staff and to Kleinig’s family, Theodore Kleinig’s story has now seen the light of day.
Stories like Kleinig’s serve to inspire and remind us of the sacrifice our forebears made. It teaches us about the legacy we have inherited and helps to prepare us for deployment on active service ourselves. Throughout the Anzac Centenary it’s important we uncover as many of these untold stories as possible. That way we can ensure the deeds and sacrifices of Australia’s unsung heroes are recorded for future generations. They serve to inspire us all to continue to embrace the Anzac tradition, firmly focussed on commemoration of soldiers, sailors and air men and women, who selflessly give their all for their fellow Australians.